Not-So-Golden Years: Shedding Light on Elder Abuse
Their houses sold against their will by their children. Getting chased out of the house. Violent attacks on their old, frail bodies.
Elder abuse is a highly traumatic experience for anyone to go through in their sunset years. It refers to any action, or lack thereof, by a relative or caregiver which puts the well-being of an elderly at risk, ranging from physical violence, emotional abuse, abandonment to financial exploitation.
According to the Ministry of Social and Family Development, 126 cases of elder abuse were reported in 2019. But social workers believe these figures are merely the tip of an iceberg. Many other elder abuse victims numbers remain unreported as they are hesitant to seek recourse or even acknowledge they are being mistreated.
A common reason behind their unwillingness to speak up is because the perpetrators are their very own family members. So even when there are viable courses of action such as calling the police, filing for a Personal Protection Order or seeking financial recourse through the Maintenance of Parents Act, of breaking up the family prevents them from doing so.
Katrina Goh, a senior counsellor at Fei Yue Family Service Centre explains, “To take your child to court is a cold and procedural affair. It almost means that family relationships are completely broken.” Shirley Lim, another senior social worker, adds, “Even if they were financially exploited, very few would fight to get their money back. Old people feel that giving up is easier. They would rather minimise their pain.”
The relative immobility of elders also leads to underreporting of elder abuse. Compared to younger people, frail or vulnerable elders may not leave the house often, if at all, and traces of abuse may be difficult for the community to spot.
The Other Side of the Story: Why Caregivers Abuse
Many cases of elder abuse may not be clear-cut. Many perpetrators happen to be caregivers who are also experiencing overwhelming stresses in their lives.
One case which Shirley had picked up was, a middle-aged lady who was reported for screaming, manhandling and possibly abusing her mother. Upon further probing, Shirley found that there was more beneath the surface. The lady happened to be a single who lost her job in the midst of attempting to manage her mother’s mental illness. For a long time, she hardly had enough sleep or rest, and had little to no family support.
“Her mother kept calling the ambulance, raking up a huge bill. Things were also hard on her. People may hear shouting and screaming, but they may not know what really goes on behind the doors.” Shirley explains.
Mental illness may also complicate accusations of elder abuse. Shirley has also encountered cases where the accounts of purported victims are incoherent because they suffer from diseases like dementia. “For example, an old lady may think everyone is out to target her. But her family is really struggling to manage her mental health issues.”
Katrina therefore highlights the need for a holistic approach that takes into account family circumstances. “Some families could be in financial situations where they cannot cope with caring for the elderly. In certain cases, facilitating daycare for elders in the community or other caregiver respite services may help to ease some of the stress which contributes to family violence.”
As a Bystander, What Can You Do to Help?
Public vigilance therefore plays a vital role in bringing elder abuse to light. Shirley shares, “For example, if an elderly tends to frequent a particular place but suddenly stops going, hopefully his or her friends are sharp enough to pick up on that and find out more. Or perhaps they’ve noticed their friend looks withdrawn or has lost weight. That might be a cause for concern too.”
If you spot signs of elder abuse, do flag these cases to relevant agencies, such as the police, Family Violence Service Centres, or Family Services Centres. These agencies can mobilise the appropriate resources to render help to the affected parties.